When friends from overseas with the slightest interest in music ask for recommendations about what to see in London, I always come up trumps. Boastful but true. In fact, even friends who’ve lived in London all their lives are impressed when I suggest a night of opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre.
Normally, that’s because they’ve never heard of it, never mind not knowing where it is or what it does. And what it does is the key. For this is the stage upon which some of the best young singers in the world prepare for stellar operatic careers, and it’s where you and I can listen to them in supreme comfort for a fraction of the cost of a ticket to the Royal Opera House.
We’re talking talent of an extraordinary kind, talent that bristles with the confidence of youth, talent not yet tainted by prima donna histrionics or big money strops — all on show at one of the most intimate opera venues anywhere in the world.
It’s tucked down the back of the RCM’s magnificent Victorian building in Prince Consort Road behind the Royal Albert
Hall. It has its own unassuming entrance via some tinny stairs and along an unglamorous, poorly lit passage-way. The foyer is made of glass as if you’re in a functional conservatory. But step into the tiered 400-seater theatre (complete with the standing-room-only gods) and you’re enveloped by red velvet as plush as anything you’ll find in La Scala. Well, almost.
Designed by the great Sir Hugh Casson (and named after former RCM student Benjamin Britten), it was opened by the Queen in 1986, while she was patron of the college (a role now taken by the Prince of Wales). As it happens, my father was chairman of the RCM council at the time and worked tirelessly to raise money for the project. I think of him every time Michael Rosewell, director of opera, raises his conductor’s baton and the magnificent sets reveal themselves for the first time.
Competition for a place in the RCM’s Vocal Faculty is fierce. Some 500 apply for 97 berths, of which only nine go on to study for an Artist Diploma in Opera. They come from all over the world and, naturally, sprinkled about in the audience are agents and talent spotters. Among those who started here are Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Thomas Allen, Alfie Boe and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.
There are two or three productions a year and what’s wonderful for those of us who work nearby is that they start at 7pm — so you can be back home for the evening news and a single malt, without having been driven mad by the West End or having spent £25 to park for a couple of hours.